Aurelien Chatagnier: From Rising Star to Star Risen

Northern Rhone’s “Underdog” Continues to Make Waves

We were late….very late, as we pulled into a semblance of a driveway outside of Aurelien’s home.  Despite this, we were greeted with a calm, collected demeanor and a gentle heads up that “I just have to go pick up my kids in an hour.” This is the kind of guy Aurelien is: humble, devoted, and quiet – both in his personality and the way he continues to rise on high levels of admiration and demand of his wines of equal status.

That was in January 2017, when I first had the pleasure of meeting Aurelien in at his small Domaine. What he has done since it awe-inspiring.

The Background:

In September 2016, I received an e-mail from Josh at Paris Wine Co informing me that a small allocation of Chatagnier St. Joseph and Condrieu had been released; would we like to have it? Without having tasted the wine and simply knowing the story and Josh’s notes, my response was a resounding “Yes.” Our first vintage on the St. Joseph Rouge was 2014, and the St. Joseph Blanc/Condrieu 2015…they were swallowed up in a matter of weeks as our wine community began to understand what these wines – and this winemaker were capable of.

As is the case with many “rising stars” in winemaking, Aurelien started from humble beginnings. He did not grow up in a winemaking family and had no connection to vineyards until, as a teenager, he started working in the vines at Domaine Jamet. You might say it was here that Aurelien caught the bug, and so in his early 20’s went to study under another N. Rhone icon, Francois Villard. Villard saw Chatagnier’s drive; his effortless connection to the vines; and a rare skill that prompted him to go out on his own.

Starting with under a hectare of rented vineyards, Aurelien has been watched by his neighbors; wine writers; and was discovered by our very own Josh Adler, who has given us this great opportunity to watch him and his wines grow and develop to where he is today. Just prior to Aurelien’s visit to NYC for Reboule du Rhone (to which only a handful of winemakers are invited), I received this note:

In January 2019, Aurélien Chatagnier will bottle his 15th vintage of red wine. For the past decade and a half, Aurélien has invested his time, effort, and savings into creating his domaine from scratch, terracing and planting vineyards, and bringing straggling old vineyards back to life. His unique style of ethereal, elegant winemaking is present in every bottle.  – Josh Adler

Ethereal and elegant are two words that come to mind when I think about this man, which is channeled into his wines of purity and distinction. I am thrilled to share the 2016 reds and 2017 whites with you and to introduce (a very small amount) of his Cornas and a new cuvee “Zelee.”


Berton Vineyards

If not totally evident from his Harley Sportster and super-mullet of silver lion’s mane, Aussie winemaker Bob Berton is a bit of a renegade. He enjoys taking risks and has built an impressive resume of making these risks pay off.

Bob Berton had been an executive for several of Australia’s top wineries, when during a mid-life crisis in 1995, Berton and his wife, Cherie, packed up and moved their family to a barren patch of dirt in the High Eden Valley (sub-region of Barossa). The family lived in a 20 ft camper trailer while they planted a vineyard and began setting up buildings for a small winery. The only trouble was that neither of them had any experience growing grapes or making wine!

Bob turned his first fruit sales into winemaking internships and within 2 years, Berton Vineyards was born. Fast forward a decade and he was doing well enough crushing and bottling fruit for export markets that he and 2 mates took another giant leap of faith and bought a huge Southcorp (Treasury Wine Estates) facility in Yenda, New South Wales that was selling at a closeout price!

What does a person do with a 20,000-ton capacity winery (that’s about 1.2 Million cases!!!)?? Crush every grape you grow, plus leverage 30+ years of grower relationships to produce wine that will capture the domestic AND export markets with superior quality to value. And give the wines a little bit of your own personality – like a belt buckle-like metal label that suits the retail shelf or restaurant back-bar equally well.

And wait until you taste these wines! Moscato Frizzante and Petite Sirah from the Big Rivers/Riverina GI; along with Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Limestone Coast (a broader GI of Coonawarra and Padthaway). Like Bob Berton, these wines have big personalities, with serious aromatic swagger, but are well-mannered and in balance. And because they come from more humble regions, they represent stunning value for what’s in the bottle. Check out Berton Metal Label wines from Small Lot, arriving in early October. Cheers,


Winemaker Highlight: Wes Hagen

After spending time with Will Costello, MS and Brand Ambassador for Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills, the bar for Central Coast wines was set very high. Outstanding! Truly Burgundian inspired! And while these wines represent the best that the Santa Maria Hills has to offer, there is much, much more to the Central Coast.

All of that becomes apparent when you happen along Wes Hagen…

Let’s learn about Wes: Consulting Winemaker and Brand Ambassador for J. Wilkes Wines in the Santa Maria Valley, California. Named one of the 100 Most Influential Winemakers in the United States (#68). Vineyard Manager and Winemaker at Clos Pepe Vineyards and Estate Wines in the Sta Rita Hills for 21 years. A leader in Santa Barbara Wine: serving more than a decade on the Board of Directors for both Santa Barbara County Vintners and Santa Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance. An accomplished wine writer, researcher, and lecturer, he wrote and had approved the last three AVA’s in Santa Barbara County: Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon and Ballard Canyon. He has written for the L.A Times Magazine, Sommelier Journal, Burgundy Report and has appeared and been featured/ quoted numerous times in the Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and Wine Enthusiast. Wes taught the Food and Wine Pairing program at Allan Hancock College for four years and has lectured on the History of Wine and Santa Barbara Wine at Cornell University, CalTech and many other prestigious institutions.

This is the short list of accomplishments.

If you spend a day with Wes, you will find he is a savant-like, mad-genius. A passionate, Encyclopedia of knowledge, and personable human being.  And all of these qualities are reflected in the wines he makes.

A brief history of the Central Coast: 31 different AVA’s ranging from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. The term Central Coast loses a bit of meaning, a history that dates back to the 1830’s and a climate and Terroir as diverse as the producers themselves, think Masson to Grahm.

Our focus today is on the southern region of the central coast. Quickly becoming known as one of the best areas in the world, outside of Burgundy, for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as Paso Robles which some consider the Napa of the south.

The unique, transverse nature of the valleys of Santa Barbara Wine Country provides a patchwork of micro-climates and terrains resulting in one of the most diverse grape growing regions in the world. The valleys in the Pacific coastline actually run east-west rather than north-south, and both the coastal Santa Ynez Mountain range and the more interior San Rafael range are transverse as well. Because of this geologic oddity, the ocean breezes sweep eastward, channeled by the hills and mountains that ring the region. Heading east into the foothills, the temperatures are warm during the day and very cool during the night, whereas the vineyards that lie westward toward the ocean enjoy a mild and moderate climate. The average temperature stays constant and is cooler than that of Oregon. Now couple that with soils that run the gamut from ancient beach and diatomaceous earth, to chert and limestone, it becomes a near-perfect place for a wide variety of wine grape varieties.

Back to Wes and the wines of J. Wilkes. Stunning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills, high toned, lots of energy and verve, beautiful fruit and minerality. The Paso Cabernet Sauvignon shows a wonderful balance of red fruit, acidity and well-integrated tannins for such a young wine.

The wines just like Wes are complex and approachable, intriguing and humble, yet a bit beguiling in that you get so much more than you bargained for with each encounter.

The Central Coast is a diverse place and should no longer be taken for granted.


Listen to the Vines – Take Time to Breathe

Marcello Marchesini: Wines from the Lake

Winemakers often emphasize the importance of gentle breezes that provide a respiratory outlet for vines, allowing them to “breathe” during their growing cycle. When I arrived at the vineyard sites of the Marchesini family in the Veneto on a recent trip with our Italian import partner Enotec, Inc. I finally understood exactly what they meant.

The parallels of our struggles, joys, and growing processes as we go through life and those experienced by vines with the threats and blessings of nature, the growing cycle and need for patience as a wine comes into its own have always been poignant for me.  After 6 days traversing through the Italian wine regions of Piedmont, Tuscany, Le Marche and Alto Adige, our final stop was with the Marchesini family in Bardolino, a region due West of Valpolicella in the Veneto that features vineyards that overlook the crystal clear waters of Lake Garda.  We were tired; we were sweaty; our patience was getting a workout. And then Giorgia greeted us as we pulled up the dirt road to the winery, her face beaming despite the heat, thrilled to show her U.S. customers the winemaking practices she has been learning from her father, Marcello. The winery tour was quick (they operate on a very small scale) and Erika (Giorgia’s older sister, responsible for Export and Marcello (their father and 2nd generation owner) were awaiting us at their second site. It was there that I walked towards the vineyards and felt the gentle breeze coming off of the Lake, bringing instant relief and a sense of calming energy from the softly swaying leaves on the vines; they were happy as well


Erika points in the direction of where we would normally see the glistening waters of Lake Garda that today are hidden by the fog and explains the importance of soil (sandier soils at higher elevation, clay in the valleys) as well as the unique exposition of their 3 vineyards at this site that produce Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. Altogether, they farm 4 vineyards that total 10 hectares and everything is done by hand by family members. While the family has had the vineyards since the early 1900’s, it wasn’t until 1970 that they built a winery and 1982 that Marcello turned it into a business, in hopes of having something to pass down to his daughters. When you see the way he looks at them as they tell us their family’s story, you can feel the pride he holds for them – and for his land as he quietly walks towards a row of vines to pick a few leaves off for the developing grapes to have more exposure to the breeze. He knows they need to breathe to eventually get them to the right place to produce the light-bodied, fresh and lovely red and rose wines that we enjoyed that afternoon and are the perfect pairings for Summer days at the lake or when you just need to sit and breathe in to get ready for what’s next.

The Marchesini family is honest, humble and proud of what their land brings them.  In turn, they emit an energy that parallels the wines they produce: Bardolino, a perfect chillable, light-bodied red and Chiaretto (a DOC subzone that only produces Rose) that is quaffable, fun and balanced. We thank them for all they do.


Red Willow Vineyard: The Epitome of People and Place

I woke up Friday morning, August 12th, and just had the feeling that it was going to be a great day.  The weather forecast said “beautiful” and we had a nice schedule of wine learning opportunities planned – vineyard work, grape tasting, wine tasting and food (lots of food).  With such a perfect day planned, I should not have been surprised to get a phone call shortly after 8 am that would essentially derail the first half of the day.

Lady Hill Winery proprietor, Jerry Owen, was able to clear his schedule and was driving from Portland up to Yakima with his new winemaker, Dan Duryee, to visit Red Willow Vineyard and check fruit before harvest.  We were invited to join them and were told to give him a call when we were done clipping vines at Two Mountain Winery in Zillah (around 10 am) so he could give us directions.  Directions?  But we have GPS.  No, we would need directions, this place was a tad off the grid.

So after Vine Pruning 101, courtesy of Two Mountain vineyard manager, Patrick Rawn, and a refreshing 10 am Sauvignon Blanc to prime the pump, I called Jerry to figure out where we were headed. “Take the Toppenish exit off of 82, and head west on Wapato Road,” he said. “Keep going for about 25 minutes until the road T’s.  Take a right and head up the hill a couple miles. It’s a historic vineyard, you guys are going to love it!”

Executing these directions sounded simple, but 16 miles out into the Yakima Nation Reservation heading straight toward the west end of the valley and the foothills of the Cascades, we had some serious doubts.  The scenery was very reminiscent of my family’s farm in eastern Montana – big, barren, August-brown hills, sagebrush, wheat fields… and then, vines.


The farmyard at Red Willow Vineyard looks like any other – outbuildings, equipment and people milling around – but the iconic Chapel atop the hill and vines with trunks bigger than my quads meant that this place was different. This place was special.

We found Jerry, Dan and, vineyard owner/farmer, Mike Sauer, in one of the shed buildings. The room was cool and large, with folding tables and chairs set for 12. A nice place to get out of the heat which was already well above 90 degrees.  The walls were adorned with photographs of the vineyard and its people – the chapel in the snow, generations of the Sauer family, local priests come to bless the harvest – most all of them, we would learn, was taken by Mike himself.

I have known Jerry Owen for a couple years now and count him as one of my absolute favorite suppliers to see accounts with.  On the surface, Jerry looks like the type of guy that would take you fly fishing or mountain biking and talk outdoors, but upon very first meeting it is completely evident that he is a very multi-faceted man.  Jerry has a Master’s in English Literature and is a consummate family man, gentleman, and scholar with the unique ability to take the most mundane conversation and bring it to a deeper level in seconds.  He does not have a superficial bone in his body. Everything he does has intent and purpose.  Jerry and Mike are cut from the same cloth.

To meet Mike Sauer in the context of our mutual friend and colleague almost certainly augmented the experience for me.  Mike would appear to be like any other Yakima Valley farmer, his skin weathered and tan from years in the dry heat, working the soil and tending vines – the type of guy who might have lived his whole life within 50 miles of his family farm.  But like his friend, Mike is a man of deep intellect, artistic passion, and great faith – a true steward of the land.  He is also extremely well-traveled and has a truly refined palate; which of course lends itself well to growing some of the best wine grapes in the Northwest.


After some getting-to-know-you chat, we set out in the midday heat for a vineyard tour.  Mike and Dan drove a two-seater, while Jerry joined my foursome on the 5-seat Mule ATV.  Driving along the vineyard blocks, each is labeled for the varietal.  Rows are numbered as well as tagged for the producer who has contracted those grapes.  This list is a veritable Who’s Who of Washington’s top producers: DeLille, Mark Ryan, and Owen Roe to name a few.  Some producers had whole blocks designated, while others may be only a row or two.  Looking at these stately, well-trained vines with their maturing clusters it was immediately apparent – these vines were old and their fruit was probably quite expensive.  We tasted Cabernet Franc from the oldest plantings in the state and two clones of Sangiovese which go into Lady Hill’s Procedo Red, before making our way up the dusty hill to some very old blocks of Syrah which surround The Chapel at Red Willow Vineyard.  These vines are original cuttings from Joseph Phelps vines in Stag’s  Leap District of Napa Valley, and it is speculated that Phelps got his cuttings straight from E. Guigal’s vineyards in the Northern Rhone.

As one can see from the innumerable pictures of it, The Chapel is not a grand or ornate structure – maybe 10 feet by 14 feet by 14 feet high – but is one of quiet, magnificent reverence (a direct reflection of its owner).  It came into being after Mike and his wife had returned from a trip to Europe where they had admired the ancient, hilltop chapels which overlook the vineyards there. Most famously, La Chappelle in Hermitage, which produces Paul Jaboulet’s most sought-after offering.

It was then that Mrs. Sauer turned to her husband and said, “I supposed we should have a chapel on our hill, too.”  He agreed although I think he may have had his heart set on it already.  Upon their return, Mike contacted a Mexican stone mason and artist who had previously done some retaining wall work for them and ran the idea past him.  The idea was met with full enthusiasm and respectful vision for the project.  It was built using stones from throughout the area, some native from the hills and some brought to the valley floor from Montana by the Missoula Floods some 15,000 years ago.  It took 3 years to complete the small building, doing everything by hand.

Entering The Chapel through its heavy iron gate was something surreal. The room is empty except for its singular stone pew and kneeler adorned with 2 candles and the simple crucifix on the front wall.  Yet in this small, simple, handmade room there is great power and peace.   The peace in this room is palpable.  You feel it, you breathe it in, you share it with those who are with you.  If only for a few minutes, time slipped away.  Then, back into the bright sun and glaring heat.

We follow Mike and Dan down the hill on the ATVs and just north onto another vineyard trail where we head west again.  Past some brand new vine plantings and a block of Concord grapes (that actually smell like Welch’s grape jelly!) we come to a block of Barbera – again, the oldest planting in the state.  Lady Hill has a tag on these grapes too and I know the end product – Lady Hill’s tiny production Procedo Barbera – and it’s pretty much magic.  By his own admission, Mike Sauer isn’t a huge fan of Barbera (or Zinfandel either) but loves his Syrahs and Cabernets.  The grapes are super-juicy, ringing with acidity and the lush, purple fruit flavors are nearly developed.  With 100+ degrees in the forecast for the next two days, the sugar levels could spike and these grapes might need to get picked.  We examine the vines and leaves closely and hope that the foliage is enough to shade these great clusters…and that the weatherman is off by maybe 5 degrees.


Dusty and sunburnt we saddle up for one last ride back to the cool respite of the conference room where we unfurl our pre-packed picnic lunch.  Now the fun can start.  We open up a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc that is fruit from Red Willow as well as the equally well-known Boushey family. Delicious and refreshing.  By now we have noticed a pattern – Washington producers don’t take Sauv Blanc too seriously, but do use it often as a thirst quencher…when in Rome.  And with the meal a Lady Hill Fons  Amoris Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 and an 8 Bells Syrah 2013 (with 4% Viognier, 2% Grenache co-fermented) – both 100% Red Willow Vineyard.

The Syrah is a textbook example of new world fruit and old world style.  Dark red fruit, leather, and spice, wrapped in a silky, yet powerful finish.  I must acknowledge that we tasted two other 2013 Red Willow Vineyard Syrahs on the trip, and this was far and away a superior wine.  The Cabernet was stunning wine as well with deeply concentrated cassis and tobacco flavors and a plush finish, all typical of the near-perfect 2012 vintage.  To argue which of these is better is merely a matter of personal preference.  Both are exquisite examples of what Red Willow fruit can do in the hands of a great winemaker who cares about maintaining the wines unique sense of place.